One story everywhere always wherever anyone puts pen

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One story. Everywhere. Always. Wherever anyone puts pen to paper or hands to keyboard or fingers to lute string or quill to papyrus. They all take from and in return give to the same story, ever since Snorgg got back to the cave and told Ongk about the mastodon that got away. Norse sagas, Samoan creation stories, Gravity’s Rainbow, The Tale of Genji, Hamlet, last year’s graduation speech, last week’s Dave Barry column, On the Road and The Road to Rio and “The Road Not Taken.” One story. What’s it about? That’s probably the best question you’ll ever ask, and I apologize for responding with a really lame answer: I don’t know. It’s not about anything. It’s about everything. It’s not about something the way an elegy is about the death of a young friend, for instance, or the way The Maltese Falcon is about solving the mystery of the fat man and the black bird. It’s about everything that anyone wants to write about. I suppose what the one story, the ur-story, is about is ourselves, about what it means to be human. I mean, what else is there? When Stephen Hawking writes A Brief History of Time, what is he doing except telling us what home is like, describing the place where we live? You see, being human takes in just about everything, since we want to know about space and time and this world and the next, questions I’m pretty sure none of my English setters have ever really pondered. Mostly, though, we’re interested in ourselves in space or time, in the world. So what our poets and storytellers do for us—drag a rock up to the fire, have a seat, listen to this one—is explain us-and- the-world, or us-in-the-world. Do writers know this? Do they think about it?
a. Good heavens, no. b. Absolutely, yes. c. Let me try again. On one level, everyone who writes anything knows that pure originality is impossible. Everywhere you look, the ground is already camped on. So you sigh and pitch your tent where you can, knowing someone else has been there before. Think of it this way: can you use a word no one else has ever used? Only if you’re Shakespeare or Joyce and coin words, but even they mostly use the same ones as the rest of us. Can you put together a combination of words that is absolutely unique? Maybe, occasionally, but you can’t be sure. So too with stories. John Barth discusses an Egyptian papyrus complaining that all the stories have been told and that therefore nothing remains for the contemporary writer but to retell them. That papyrus describing the postmodern condition is forty-five hundred years old. This is not a terrible thing, though. Writers notice all the time that their characters resemble somebody—Persephone, Pip, Long John Silver, La Belle Dame sans Merci—and they go with it. What happens, if the writer is good, is usually not that the work seems derivative or trivial but just the opposite: the work actually acquires depth and resonance from the echoes and chimes it sets up with prior texts, weight from the accumulated use of certain basic patterns and tendencies. Moreover, works are actually more comforting because we recognize elements in them from our prior reading. I

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